Indianapolis Monthly

Ms. Understood

The woman in charge of The Children’s Museum’s new Barbie exhibit never played with Barbie. The willowy blonde doll held no interest for Jennifer Pace Robinson, who wore glasses as a child and was something of a tom-boy. Instead, the museum’s vice president staged Star Wars action-figure invasions in her friend’s Barbie Dream House. “I loved comic books and superheroes,” she says. “I never had a strong connection with Barbie.”

Pace Robinson knows she was firmly in the minority, though. Mattel, the company that makes the doll, estimates that at its peak in the 1990s, more than 95 percent of American girls between ages 3 and 11 owned at least one Barbie. By Barbie’s 50th birthday in 2009, Mattel had sold more than 1 billion of its leading ladies.

Yet her success came with a lot of criticism from feminist scholars: Her proportions are unrealistic. She teaches girls to measure their worth by their weight. She’s the poster child for whitewashing and materialism.

A 2006 study published in the journal Developmental Psychology found that 5-to-8-year-old girls who played with Barbie expressed greater preoccupation with being thin than when they played with other dolls.

She represents a regressive view of women. In the 1960s, it was Ken who was the airline captain, Barbie the stewardess. The 1980s dolls lived in a pink Dream House. The 1993 Police Officer Barbie came with a sparkly gold party dress for the “Police Awards Ball.”

Perhaps in response to those critiques, the siren has received a makeover in recent years. In 2016, Mattel debuted a doll that came in four body types: original, petite, tall, and curvy. The company eventually expanded the collection to encompass eight body types, 35 skin tones, and 94 hairstyles, including dolls that are bald, use wheelchairs, or are gender-neutral. In 2019, according to Mattel, more than half of the dolls it sold came from diverse backgrounds.

The toy company also committed to making Barbie more empowering. Mattel executives said they wanted to close the “Dream. Barbie’s careers now range from rock climber to robot programmer. “We really were delighted to see how the brand evolved,” says Pace Robinson of her team’s work curating The Children’s Museum exhibit.

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